Holy moly. While listening to my wife and daughters discuss upcoming Christmas plans, it struck me that I’m steaming rapidly toward my 56th Christmas holiday.
Holy moly, I’m an oldie.
I don’t remember details from every one of those Christmas Days, but I remember a lot of parts from plenty of them. And as I run them through my feeble mind, I realize how much the holiday’s meaning has changed as I’ve aged.
I have vague recollections of being a little kid getting up on Christmas morning. Then, all that mattered was getting to the tree before my brothers so I could see what kind of loot I’d racked up. There was always a nagging worry then, all because of the whole “He knows when you’ve been bad or good” thing. I was too young to think Santa may have had some weird agenda, or maybe the myth simply was one propagated by my parents in an effort to keep my heathen self in line. I wasn’t counting on anything. Some years, I was shocked to get anything considering how I’d behaved all year long.
I don’t think it ever registered I was getting stuff anyway. At the time, I was just thrilled to open presents. Any presents. I did what I think every child does at the time: Rip stuff open, celebrate for a tiny moment and grab for the next one. I’d take stock of those gifts later. I was more worried about quantity over quality.
A few years later, I developed a different issue with Santa. My family had settled into a community, and for the first time in my life I had real childhood friends — and not ones I’d be telling goodbye within the year.
I was also old enough to begin seeing differences, and it caused irreparable damage in my relationship with Old Saint Nick.
My friends’ families were better off financially than my family was. To their credit, none of us paid any mind to status. I loved them, they loved me and nothing else mattered.
Until Christmas. My parents did a wonderful job ensuring my siblings and I always had a good Christmas. No matter how things were going, we never did without anything. I still don’t know how Mom and Dad managed it.
But as kids inevitably do, there were comparisons. “Hey, what’d you get?” When my better-off friends recited their lists of fairly expensive — to me, anyway — bounty, my young self couldn’t help but notice the discrepancies. I was too young to understand and too young to know how wrong I was for thinking that way.
It didn’t matter. I started wondering about Santa’s motivation. My friends and I usually got into the very same trouble together. Why was the old fat guy picking on me?
Thankfully, I grew out of it. I learned the truth about Santa and learned to appreciate my parents even more. Santa didn’t impress me any longer. Dude worked one night a year. My parents worked like crazy every day and still made Christmas special.
My meaning of Christmas had changed.
Yet nothing changes an adult’s perspective on the holiday more than having one’s own children. Man, everything is different then. After swearing as a teen I’d never subject my own kids to lies about Santa and elves and all that trope, I couldn’t wait to make some magic with my daughters. Once, I waited until they were in bed before planting my combat boots in the soot of our fireplace; I then tracked them across the floor to the table where they’d left milk and cookies. Seeing their reactions the next morning was priceless.
I also experienced the rough side of Christmas — the very same side my parents had lived. I was disabled for a few years, meaning my kids got almost nothing on Christmas morning. I prayed they wouldn’t think Santa liked their friends more.
They never let on if they were disappointed in any way. They celebrated those $5 Walmart DVDs as if they’d hit the lottery. I’m forever grateful for their sweet reactions.
They grew older and stopped believing around the same time I got back on my feet — both literally and financially. Their favorite gifts became the cash I stuffed in an envelope with a promise of a whole day shopping wherever they chose. Dude, I had no idea what I was doing when I made those promises. We’re talking hours and hours of walking around malls while they hit every store and tried on every item. I joked — or maybe I was serious — they’d better never question my love after sacrificing so much of my life for a mall.
All those years flew by. The kids grew up, got married and moved away. My meaning of Christmas now involves trying to figure out how in the world my wife and I are gonna see all our loved ones in the short time surrounding the holidays. Gift giving is easier now, but finding a way to hook up and exchange ’em is so danged hard.
I’ve also noticed that for a long time, Santa didn’t enter the conversations much. It became yet another thing I thought was simply going to fade into my past — you know, like not-gray hair and good knees. Without any little ones around, the holiday wasn’t quite the same. I was even starting to save a little money. Scrooge and I became soul brothers.
Ah, but when your children get married, you know what happens next?
Man, oh man. Why in the world didn’t we have them first? They come for short visits, we get to spoil the crap out of ’em, and when they start getting the least bit unruly, we can give ’em back and reclaim our peace and quiet.
Even better, Santa is back. The Christmas-morning rush to the tree is back. The sheer joy of the day is back in my life. Our first grandchild, Atticus, was with us for his second Christmas. He woke us up at 4 a.m. and dove right into the pile under the tree. I watched his mom — my daughter — trying to open her eyes around a cup of coffee, and I remembered the feeling. We’d been up late setting everything up — knowing that jolly old fool Santa was gonna get all the credit — just as my parents had done for me and as I’d done for my daughters.
For a little while, I left behind my Santa grudge and marveled in the magic.
It’s weird to realize now: Christmas never really changed. I did. My beliefs, my perspectives. The magic has always been there. My life situations determined how I would or wouldn’t see it.
I see it now. No matter how many more of these days I get to witness, I’m thankful to have lived long enough to appreciate it all in ways I didn’t for a long time.
If Santa happens to make an appearance, I won’t hold a grudge. I’ll split the milk and cookies with him, and there we’ll be:
Two old, gray-haired fat guys sitting around waiting for the kids to wake up.